Nigeria’s Okonjo-Iweala becomes first woman, African to lead WTO

WASHINGTON: Three months after the Trump administration rejected her, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala received unanimous backing on Monday to become the first woman and first African director-general of the World Trade Organization.

She was appointed director-general of the World Trade Organization by representatives of the 164 member countries, according to a statement from the body. She is the first African official and the first woman to hold the job.

She said in a statement that her first priority would be to quickly address the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and to “implement the policy responses we need to get the global economy going again.”

“Our organization faces a great many challenges but working together we can collectively make the WTO stronger, more agile and better adapted to the realities of today,” she said.

The appointment came after new United States President Joe Biden endorsed her candidacy, which had been blocked by former President Donald Trump.

The US delegate to the WTO said he was eager to work with Okonjo-Iweala. Biden’s decision to support Okonjo-Iweala was part of his broader agenda to choose more cooperative approaches to international problems after Trump’s ‘America First’ approach launched multiple trade disputes.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration reversed Trump’s opposition and expressed “strong support’’ for Okonjo-Iweala and said she “brings a wealth of knowledge in economics and international diplomacy”.

Okonjo-Iweala, formerly Nigeria’s finance minister, had a 25-year career at the World Bank, where she rose to the number-two position of managing director. She holds both US and Nigerian citizenship.

South Korean trade minister Yoo Myung-hee had withdrawn her candidacy, leaving Okonjo-Iweala as the only choice. Her predecessor, Roberto Azevedo, stepped down on August 31, a year before his term expired.

Trump repeatedly accused the WTO of unfair treatment, started a trade war with China in defiance of the WTO system, and threatened to pull the US out of the trade body altogether.

Trump also imposed 25 percent steel tariffs that hit European allies on national security grounds, a justification that went beyond trade measures normally used within the WTO rules framework to address complaints about unfair trade.

Biden has not said whether the US will unblock the appellate appointments, and he has not withdrawn the steel tariffs, which are backed by US steel industry and union groups.

The World Trade Organization is an international body that deals with the rules of trade between nations. At its heart are the WTO agreements, negotiated among the bulk of the world’s nations and ratified in their legislatures.


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